Michigan Engineering News

Emergency fund fills in gaps for students during pandemic

Donations will help address a variety of issues.

An emergency fund created by Michigan Engineering is helping students deal with issues caused by the arrival of COVID-19—problems that run the gamut from unexpected travel costs to food insecurity.

Nebraska native Joseph Taylor was set to finish his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan this fall and then continue his education with a master’s degree through the Sequential Undergraduate/Graduate Studies (SUGS) program. 

As 2020 got underway, Taylor planned to save money from both his on-campus job, as well as the spring internship he’d lined up with Toyota, to make the transition as smooth as possible. But he, like so many others, was thrown a curveball when COVID-19 arrived, limiting many U-M programs and services in March. 

“With SUGS, you don’t get need-based financial assistance at that point, so I’m definitely needing as much income as possible from summer jobs and my on-campus job,” said Taylor from his home near North Platte, Nebraska.

Toyota eventually made the internship an online-only experience, but without his campus job, Taylor had to dip into his savings to pay for unused spring Ann Arbor rent and utilities.

“COVID-19 has really impacted engineering students in a myriad of ways,” said Jeanne Murabito, executive director of the Office of Student Affairs. “Many have been impacted with their internships not happening or lab work not happening. Students have been struggling with food insecurity and how to get home after they were asked to leave the residence halls.” 

For Taylor and others in Michigan Engineering, support has come in the form of the Engineering Student Emergency Fund. He received financial assistance to help offset rent as well as improving his WI-FI connection back home in Nebraska. Since March, the program—run by the Office of Student Affairs—has reached out to all 11,000 engineering students.

“A lot of their family members have lost jobs, seen hours cut back or been put on furlough,” Murabito said. “All of those things and many others have really led to this need, a desperate need, actually, for some students.”

The effort to meet those needs falls under the umbrella of Michigan Engineering’s Victory Gardens program—a callback to the “Victory Gardens” of World War I and II, where citizens in countries around the world answered their governments’ call to grow food for the common good. 

“The fund definitely helped and I felt a sense of relief from that,” Taylor said. 

Other students have needed similar assistance. Zeinab Bcharouche used to thrive on studying with others at the library, finding it motivating in a way other arrangements did not. But when classes first moved online and most students went home, the rising sophomore’s study setup was a corner of a bedroom she shared with her younger brother. The upstairs of her household has been reserved for her older brother, a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients.

Six girls taking a selfie.
Zeinab Bcharouche (right), first year BME undergraduate stops for a photo with friends who would later be forced out of their U-M housing to lower the spread of COVID-19. The emergency fund afforded her the means to purchase a new laptop and helped her stay on top of her class workload.

“I miss being able to study outside the house,” said Bcharouche, a biomedical engineering student from Dearborn. “When you’re at the library or with your friends, there’s a motivation there to get the work done. When you’re home like this, you’re not separated from your relaxation space. Your brain gets mixed up and doesn’t know when to start or stop.”

Bcharouche was relegated to that specific corner of the room so as not to be far from the power outlet her battery-challenged HP laptop needs. It could only provide power for 30 minutes to an hour before it needed to recharge.

After contacting the Student Emergency Fund, Bcharouche was able to get assistance to pay for all but $200 of a MacBook Pro—a laptop that allows her to be more choosy of where she sets up to study.

The College was able to contact students with the help of nearly 70 student affairs staff and other College employees who volunteered to do the initial outreach. 

As part of that outreach, students were asked to fill out a survey about their successes in switching to a learn-from-home situation. And the results showed many are struggling.

When asked how things are going, roughly 57% responded in a positive way. But more than 11% answered, “I’m barely getting by.” 

Murabito said the needs and stress are only likely to increase as the University of Michigan looks for a path forward with a new semester on the way. Additionally, the month of June has brought sustained protests around the globe in opposition to police violence and in support of civil rights for the black community. And it’s all happening while COVID-19 continues to change how we live.

In preparation for the future, the fund has been accepting donations since April. To date, it has taken in nearly $145,000.

One large contributor is Robert Scott, director of diversity initiatives for the College. Much of what is happening these days, he said, is oddly familiar.

“I was a student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I thought I was living in chaotic times,” Scott said. “The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, Watergate, Attica…at times it seemed like the world was spinning out of control. It was all I could do to stay focused on my studies while praying better days were ahead. And they were, eventually.

“As tough as that was, the past six months seems infinitely harder. A pandemic that has gripped the entire world has made it clear that there is still a gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ The gap has widened since my days at school. An economic gap, a healthcare gap and now a social equality gap that has adults in a world of pain and confusion. I cannot imagine what it must be like for students who are trying to make it in unprecedented times.

“As someone who has walked this path, it is an obligation to reach back and help.”

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James Lynch

Research News & Feature Writer